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Say Cheese! Madison, Wisconsin Is Cooking With Food Production

By Gary Wollenhaupt on May 12, 2016

Madison, WI
Madison / Michael D. Tedesco

From master cheesemakers handcrafting wheels in time-honored ways to companies with a global reach, the Madison Region has a full menu of food and beverage manufacturing.

Anchored by a powerhouse dairy industry, the region is home to more than 280 food manufacturing establishments that produce everything from cheese to meat, preserves, sauces, baked goods and beer.

A study by the Madison Region Economic Partnership and the University of Wisconsin Extension released in October 2014 puts food-manufacturing employment in the region at 11,600; recent numbers from the U.S. Census Bureau’s quarterly workforce indicators put the count as high as 12,198.

Owing to its deep roots in dairy and the presence of major research assets, such as the Center for Dairy Research at the University of Wisconsin, the region has cultivated a significant and growing cluster of specialty cheese producers feeding a growing appetite for artisanal cheeses. Specialty cheeses accounted for 23 percent of the overall Wisconsin cheese production in 2014, nine percent higher than a decade earlier.

Growing to Meet Demand for Cheese

The growth of online shopping, snacking, bold flavors, pairings, convenience foods and an ongoing trend of consumers choosing natural, artisan foods will impact the ways Americans eat cheese in 2015, according to the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board.

Green County has a high concentration of cheese producers with many specialty cheese products. The county has 13 cheese manufacturing plants, 31 dairy processing plants and more Master Cheesemakers than any other county in the state.

One of those Master Cheesemaker designees is Sid Cook of Carr Valley Cheese in La Valle, whose company has won more than 550 national and international awards for its cheeses over the past 10 years. Carr Valley operates four plants and eight retail stores in south-central Wisconsin that produce and sell 95 different cheeses. The company also sells to specialty stores and artisan shops throughout the U.S., as well as Australia, Japan, Mexico, France and other countries.

“We make excellent cheeses by using cow, sheep or goat milk from the Madison Region,” says Cook, a fourth-generation cheesemaker. “We buy cow milk from 20 area dairy farms, sheep milk from the northern part of Wisconsin, and goat milk from northeastern part of the state.”

Cook says the company continues to experience growth thanks in part to the high quality of its products, and the region’s superior quality of life.

“I hail from the Madison Region and today I live on a lake on some beautiful rural land near farms just northwest of Madison,” he says. “I have the beauty of the outdoors, yet I’m only 20 minutes away from the businesses on the west side of Madison. It’s a great quality of life here – especially when UW and the Packers win in football.”

Innovation in cheesemaking flows from the Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research (CDR), housed in Babcock Hall at the University of Wisconsin- Madison. The facility, which has housed a dairy school for more than 100 years, is undergoing a $34 million renovation of its dairy science facilities. Babcock Hall also houses a working dairy plant.

With CDR’s help, Wisconsin cheesemakers produce almost half of the specialty cheese made in the United States. The center is helping farmers develop products that meet the demands of export markets such as Asia.

“The new facility will have a specialty cheese suite with nine individual ripening rooms, so whether it’s blue mold or white mold or smear cheese, whichever cheese variety, we will have state-of-the-art facilities to make it and test it,” says John Lucey, the center’s director. “To my knowledge it will be the only facility of its kind in the U.S.”

Emmi Roth USA in Monroe develops award-winning cheese varieties, such as the Roth’s Private Reserve that was named Runner-Up to the Best of Show at the 2015 American Cheese Society Competition. Inspired by traditional Alpine-style cheeses, this distinctive cheese is crafted from the freshest raw milk from family farms and is carefully cured on wooden boards for a minimum of six months by Roth cellar masters

New Wheys to Prosper

To develop a well-trained workforce, the company partners with the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board and the Center for the Advancement of Foodservice Education on projects like the Annual Wisconsin Cheese Immersion Externship, which includes a hands-on cheesemaking experience along with cutting, handling and culinary sessions taught by Emmi Roth USA expert cheesemakers and corporate chefs.

“It’s one of our favorite events to host,” says Linda Duwve, vice president of sales and marketing at Emmi Roth USA. “Instructors gain valuable insights that will augment their cheese curriculum, and the expansion of this year’s externship to include culinary students is a wonderful opportunity for us to help create knowledgeable cheese ambassadors.”

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